The Subtle Beauty of Creating A Good Line

When I lived in the desert several years back, I recall seeing the beautiful lines nature drew on the desert floor’s red sand crystals using slender grass strands, as the breeze bent them back and forth in the wind. Beneath the grass in wonderful dark silhouetted lines rested shadows. The desert contains a wide variety of fantastic textures and lines. National Geographic has captured some of these here, and Danielle Venton in her Wired article, “Photographers Capture Mysterious, Beautiful Patterns in the Sand” says that people don’t even understand the physics involved that creates such beautiful lines in the sand. 

Using my husband’s recent gift of a new set of drawing pens and lessons from Arthur L. Guptill’s book, Rendering in Pen and Ink, I’m learning a new appreciation for the beauty of lines. What the sand, wind and sun do effortlessly, is a challenge to create with pen and ink. Drawing a simple curve and then duplicating it so the line goes exactly in the direction you want it to, for example, is not easy. You need to take your time and go slowly, deliberately forming lines like warm-up scales for use later in drawing. Even then, creating a beautiful line takes practice, lots of it.

Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. If this is an accurate analysis of what it takes to get really good at a skill, then I’ve got about 9,995 hours to go.  BBC’s David Bradley says in his article, “Why Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is Wrong” that the research Gladwell based his research on actually suggests that the 10,00 hours are just a rule of thumb, though, not the “tipping point” at which you are a virtuoso. The amount of time depends on the particular skill you are practicing. “Learning and gaining experience are gradual processes; skills evolve slowly, with practice. And there is a vast range of time periods over which different individuals reach their own peak of proficiency – their concert level, you might say – in whatever field.” Ericson, the person’s study at Berlin’s Academy of Music on which Gladwell’s statement is based, suggests that what counts further is that “not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour average. It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.”

I don’t know how many hours French artist Simon Beck has put in to create his fantastic geometric figures in the snow, but the lines he draws using snow shoes are truly a thing of beauty and take hours at a time to create. The perseverance his work takes is inspiring.

Creating a good line is also important to poetry as well, and over the last few years, this is something that I’ve been trying to understand how to get better at. I examined lines from different poets, from William Stafford to Denise Levertov, John Ciardi, Louis Simpson, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Lucile Clifton, Nick Samaras, Li Young Lee and a number of others, trying to define what gives a line its energy and strength. Sometimes I see it clearly, and sometimes it’s a mystery. It might take 10,000 hours to get it right. Seems like many things that hold great beauty take a lot of hours to learn. These kinds of skills are subtle. You can’t just create a rule to never break a line after using an article or after a conjunction, for example, because after making such a generalization, you’ll find a really good poem from an excellent writer that breaks the rule. That’s not to say that a good poet can’t or doesn’t sometimes make a weak line break choice, but I think that the writers I’ve mentioned are experienced, and their line break choices deliberate. People have different ideas of beauty, and different ideas about line breaks in poetry. The goal for me is to experiment and practice with increased deliberate focus while writing. What makes a line so powerful? What makes it feel right? Maybe it is an individual thing, but in any thing a person creates, practicing the skill over and over, and attuning oneself to observe closely what others are doing that stirs your own soul, and then to listening from the inside to what your own work suggests is a good start down a path that leads to better understanding. If I can learn to listen better to others’ work as well as to my own, if I can learn to listen more deeply to the world around me, I think I might gain greater insight into many things in life, not just how to draw or write a good line of poetry, but how to live. All these things are part of each other.

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